Assassination: Murders of Lizzie and Andrew Brownlie 1874

Murder Victims

Lizzie Thomson Brownlie
32-year-old Farm Wife
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Personal Assassination

Andrew J. Brownlie
4-year-old Son
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Collateral Damage

Murder Scene and Dates

Brownlie Home
Winfield Township
Near Long Grove, Iowa
Scott County
February 18, 1874
February 21, 1874


By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2014

location of Long Grove, Iowa

location of Long Grove, Iowa

Since before Iowa became a state, the Brownlie family was a prominent fixture for charity and progress in Scott County near Long Grove — 13 miles as the crow flies north of Davenport and the Mississippi River.

Patriarch James Alexander Brownlie was born in Scotland, immigrated to Canada, and was living in Iowa by 1838, where he acquired property and extended his family.

James and his wife Rachel Ritchie Walker had three daughters, Isabelle, Jane, and Katherine, as well as three sons–Robert, James, and Alexander W. Brownlie. James built a state-of-the-art home and farm so impressive and well-administered that it was featured in atlases of the time. Brownlie was also the primary force behind the building of the Long Grove Christian Church.

The Thomsons were headed up by Hugh Muir Thomson and his wife Jean Alice “Jennie” Robertson, who were equally respected and regarded in the community since moving there in 1844. Thomson — characterized as “a gruff big-hearted Scotsman” — was a local School Board Director, Scott County Supervisor, and member of the Iowa Legislature in the mid-1860s. For a time, he was superintendent of the farm that was the nucleus of the Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University).

Hugh Thomson and his wife had seven children. In 1862, one of them — Elizabeth “Lizzie” Thomson — married Alexander W. Brownlie in Long Grove, bringing together the two powerful families.

☛ Ideal Family? ☚

Lizzie Brownlie

Lizzie Brownlie

Alexander and Lizzie Brownlie resided in a well-kept story-and-a-half house at the end of an isolated lane half-a-mile from the main road leading into Long Grove. Their nearest neighbor lived a quarter-of-a-mile to the south.

The couple was financially secure and managed their money wisely. They farmed 160 acres and owned about 500 acres of undeveloped land elsewhere.

Their house was not ostentatious, but nicely furnished with all necessities. Alexander always employed a farmhand to help with his work, and Lizzie enjoyed the luxury of a hired girl to cook, wait on the table, and do other chores.

Both sets of in-laws lived within two miles of Lizzie and Alexander, and the relationships among the families were cordial and close.

Alexander and Lizzie had four children: Sarah, born December 7, 1862; William, called “Willie,” in 1866; Anna in January of 1868; and Andrew on November 12, 1869.

☛ Shadow of Mental Illness ☚

Alexander Brownlie

Alexander Brownlie

On the surface, the Brownlies’ lives looked complete and perfect. But things were not as they appeared. Their four children were both a blessing and a curse, especially for Lizzie.

After their births, she suffered tenacious episodes of mental disturbances and was committed to an insane asylum twice, the last time in 1871 when she stayed 14 months and 18 days.

Allopathic physician Dr. Archibald Stephens Maxwell of Davenport, who treated Lizzie during the periods of mental problems, diagnosed her with Puerperal Mania, known now as Postpartum Psychosis, a disorder more severe than Postpartum Depression in that after childbirth the mother suffers not only depression but powerful mood swings, hallucinations, and other psychoses. After treatments, Lizzie functioned well enough to run her household until the psychosis returned.

Lizzie’s problems affected the entire extended family; records show her father Hugh Thomson’s tenure at Iowa State Agricultural College in Story County was rocky because “family illnesses” often kept him in Long Grove.

Lizzie and Alexander never quarreled but treated each other with respect and kindness. He always showed tender patience with her during her toughest times.

In the winter of 1873-1874, Lizzie was managing well enough to believe she no longer needed a hired girl. She also felt Alexander should dismiss his hired man, Lewis Johnson, during the winter when chores were not heavy.

That was not to say Lizzie was cured or completely well. He husband later said she had periods during the winter preceding her death when she seemed “dull” and not as lively and cheerful as usual, sometimes forgetful. She had not left the house much lately and told Alexander she felt comfortable staying alone while he was at Wednesday Prayer Meetings because “the children were company enough.” He was seldom absent at any other time.

☛ Lewis Johnson ☚

The hired man Lizzie wanted dismissed that winter was long-time employee Lewis Johnson, 28, a person she and her husband and children regarded as a family member, even though he was black — described by the Davenport Gazette as:

“A mulatto of tall form and rather good head though he has high cheek bones, piercing black eyes, and curly hair.”

North Carolina native Lewis Johnson — one of a large number of freed slaves who congregated in the Davenport area — was treated equally in all ways and ate at the table with the family as though related to them, a behavior nearly unheard of in those days for a hired hand of any ethnicity.

Johnson was also accepted as a family member by the extended Brownlie and Thomson families and was a constant fixture at their church, Long Grove Christian.

Although he was no longer a full-time hand at the Brownlie home from just before Christmas of 1873, he stayed on and performed small chores for his board, coming and going as he wished.

☛ Killing Day ☚

Jean Robinson Thomson, mother of the victim Lizzie.

Jennie Robertson Thomson, mother of Lizzie and grandmother of Andrew, visited on the day of the murders.

During the day of Wednesday, February 18, visitors came to the farm: relatives James and Elizabeth Neil, as well as Jennie Thomson, Lizzie’s mother.

When the guests left, Alexander did chores and tended a sick mare.

After supper, Lizzie Brownlie tidied the kitchen and washed the dishes; Sarah, the oldest child, washed out the milk pails and then stacked corncobs in the fireplace to heat the kitchen against the February cold.

Alexander told his wife he was reluctant to leave that evening but needed to get medicine for his ailing mare. Lizzie encouraged him to go, assuring him she and the children would be okay.

Before he left for Long Grove, Alexander unloaded bran in the barn. Eight-year-old Willie helped out and came back into the house. He wanted to accompany his dad into town, but Lizzie forbade it.

☛ Shotgun Blasts ☚

About 20 minutes after Alexander left the house, Lizzie sat down at her sewing machine by the window in the southeast corner of the kitchen. A kerosene lamp nearby cast light on the four children and their mother.

Lizzie’s machine treadle provided a steady, comforting noise as the Brownlie children played on the kitchen floor, rolling a ball back and forth. Willie, 8, was in particularly high spirits, as Sarah later told a jury:

“I thought the door was unfastened; there was a catch over the latch, and I went to fasten it and Willie got into a sort of pet and run and turned it up, and I suppose I got contrary, too, and I fastened it again, and he unfastened it.”

The door — the only one into and out of the house — was then unlocked.

Suddenly, a crash sounded in the sitting room next to the kitchen. It was later discovered that a partial brick was thrown through the window, breaking three panes.

Lizzie stopped pedaling her sewing machine and listened. She shushed the children and they fell quiet. But no voices or other noises could be heard outside. Lizzie told the children the sound was probably the pigs rattling planks on their barnyard platform.

The loud noise distressed four-year-old Andrew, so Lizzie bent over, took him in her arms, and cuddled him against her shoulder.

Suddenly the night was shattered by two explosions — two blasts from a double-barreled shotgun.

Lizzie Brownlie was hit by the first blast and turned towards the sound and was struck again in quick succession. She shrieked a horrible scream, calling out “O dear, Sarah! O dear, Sarah!” and fell slowly onto her sewing machine, the wounds leaving blood where her injured shoulder struck the surface, and then partially onto the floor with her head resting on the chair.

from the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye

from the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye

Although the lace curtains survived intact, the window panes were shattered; glass mingled with blood on the floor, and the kerosene light which had illuminated the happy play of the children only moments before was shot out.

As she tried to put out a fire burning her mother’s dress where she was struck by shot, Sarah looked towards a clock and saw by fireplace light it was 7:50 p.m.

Simultaneously, James Steffens, farmhand at the John Hell farm — one-half mile across the fields from the Brownlie home — heard a shot coming from that direction. He stepped outside but heard no more gunfire and no voices. Something about the shot, he thought, seemed “awful rough . . . and from the noise [sounded] pretty heavily loaded.”

☛ Children in Fear ☚

Andrew began to cry, so Sarah picked him up and washed blood away and could see he was injured on the left side of his head.

Terrified and knowing the only door to the house was unlocked and that if they left the home they would be walking straight into whoever fired the blasts, Sarah carried Andrew upstairs and got Willie and Anna to follow her. She feared the person outside who killed her mother might come back, this time into the house.

Sarah placed Andrew on a bed upstairs and locked the door of the room behind them, telling the other two children not to say anything for fear they would be found and murdered also.

They hid in corners and stayed absolutely still and quiet, afraid even to call out for help.

☛ In Long Grove ☚

Winfield Township, where the families involved lived in sections

Winfield Township, where the families involved lived in sections 25, 26, and 35.

Meanwhile, unaware of the horror in his home, Alexander Brownlie steadily went about his errands on horseback. At exactly the moment the shots were fired that killed his wife and fatally wounded his youngest son, Alexander entered the home of his parents — James and Ritchie Brownlie — where he stayed about an hour visiting with them and his brother Robert.

Robert Brownlie later said he was certain of the time his brother Alexander arrived at the parents’ home because his mother reminded everyone Prayer Meeting started soon and they needed to hurry along. Robert looked up at two clocks — one above the other — to verify the time. One was set at Rock Island Arsenal Time, which read 7:20, and the other for Railroad Time, which indicated 7:40.

After leaving the elder Brownlies’ home, Alexander Brownlie rode on to Long Grove, where he stopped at Dr. Silas Richardson’s store and inquired about Friar’s Balsam, a tincture of benzoin he used on his livestock. The store was out of the product and Alexander did not want any other brand. He chatted with several people at the store, including Mr. Rich’s two boys and Ned Richardson, for five minutes before leaving.

Long Grove Christian Church in contemporary times.

Long Grove Christian Church in current times.

Meanwhile, folks were gathering at the Long Grove Christian Church for weekly 8:00 Prayer Meeting. The service was short that night — 20 to 30 minutes — and after it adjourned, some of the members stood talking with the minister Rev. Henry Exley about going on a visit. Lewis Johnson, Alexander’s off-and-on hired hand, arrived just after 8:00 and said he’d walked to Long Grove from Davenport that evening. He shook hands with the other congregants and seemed his usual cordial self.

James Brownlie took out his watch when leaving the church and noted it was 8:40.

Alexander Brownlie left Richardson’s store in Long Grove and then stopped at his brother Robert Brownlie’s home, where he was still chatting when their father James Brownlie came in with farmhand Lewis Johnson from the Prayer Meeting.

After bidding all good night, Alexander started for home on the Long Grove Road; his mare was unshod, so where the road was solid he trotted and, where soft, he walked the horse.

Lewis Johnson left Robert Brownlie’s home shortly afterwards and headed in the same direction as Alexander on foot.

Alexander Brownlie said he never saw Lewis Johnson during his 15-to-20-minute trip — in fact, did not know Johnson was following him home, as sometimes he stayed elsewhere. Johnson, however, said he could sometimes see Brownlie ahead of him.

☛ Darkened House of Horror ☚

When Alexander came within sight of his home, he saw it was dark — no light burned anywhere. Because it was too early for the family to retire, he grew suspicious. At the front of the house, he tossed the halter over the horse’s neck and rushed inside.

When he entered the kitchen, Alexander Brownlie struck a match but could not find the kerosene lamp.

from the Waterloo Courier

from the Waterloo Courier

By the illumination of the match and the dim fireplace, he found his way to the pantry, where he located and lit a candle which threw light onto a terrible sight — his wife Lizzie, described by the Davenport Gazette as “literally weltering in her blood.”

At first, Alexander thought she had fallen from her chair and was asleep. Then he screamed with the terrible recognition his wife was dead.

When the four children cowering upstairs heard the scream, they realized the person downstairs was their father and not the assailant who killed their mother.

Slowly from the dark, the Brownlie children emerged from their upstairs hiding places like fearful creatures.

Sarah pleaded with her father to come upstairs and hide in the bedroom with her and the others, insisting the killer was still outside the house and could return at any minute. “You’ll be shot. You’ll be shot,” she cried over and over. To placate her and to check on his wounded son, Alexander Brownlie went up.

He raised a bedroom window and screamed for help. Lewis Johnson heard Alexander’s voice as he neared the Brownlie place and started running to the house.

Johnson ran up the stairs, where he found Sarah clinging to her father. Alexander told Lewis Johnson to hurry to the homes of the James and Robert Brownlies and on to neighbors to spread word of the murder.

But first, he wanted Lewis to go down to the kitchen and cross Lizzie’s hands on her chest.

Once notified of the murder, John Flook and another neighbor rode to Davenport to inform Lizzie’s father Hugh Thomson, who was serving as foreman of a Scott County grand jury. Thomson left for Long Grove immediately.

As word spread through the community, men formed a posse to search for suspects.

☛ Initial Inquest ☚

Hugh M. Thomson, father and grandfather of the victims (State of Iowa).

Hugh M. Thomson, father and grandfather of the victims
(State of Iowa)

On Wednesday, February 19, Scott County Coroner Dr. William W. Grant arrived at the Brownlie home for an inquest. Along the road, he encountered Lizzie Brownlie’s father, who was not aware of the full horror of what happened to his daughter and grandson. The Davenport Gazette wrote of the father’s sorrow:

“[Thomson’s] terrible grief did not express itself in cries or moans — but he seemed to lose consciousness, for the time, of everything about him.”

About two dozen neighbors were gathered in the Brownlie home, the women doing their best to take care of the children and keep the household going.

Dr. Grant appointed W.G. Richie, Alexander Brownlie, and John Robertson to serve as a coroner’s jury. Observing the proceedings were Davenport Police Justice Kauffman and Police Chief Martens.

The first witness, Alexander Brownlie, stood before the casket and said:

“The body that lies here is that of my wife.”

Dr. Grant examined Lizzie’s body — removing seven buck shot from the wounds — and told jurors, as recorded by the Davenport Gazette:

“There is every indication of effect from two discharges of powder and shot. The first tore away the flesh from the left shoulder and upper portion of the arm, and lacerated the left breast; the second tore away a rib above the breast laceration . . . making a hole large enough to admit the entrance of one’s hand. The nozzle of the gun had been held so close to Mrs. Brownlie as to burn the flesh while there were powder marks all through the wounds.”

from the Waterloo Courier

from the Waterloo Courier

Alex Brownlie testified he could find nothing taken from his home and that money in the pocket of pants hanging on the wall was untouched. The motive for the attack seemed purely to kill Lizzie Brownlie, not to rob the home.

A second sad fact emerged: the horrible act was likely going to be a double homicide. Four-year-old Andrew Brownlie had six buckshot in the left side and top of his head. Probing by doctors revealed one buckshot in his brain and perhaps two. Another one shredded the scalp down to the skull and then glanced off.

Andrew Brownlie died Saturday evening, February 21 and was buried beside his mother the next day.

☛ The Weapon ☚

Where was the weapon which inflicted such tremendous damage on the mother and child?

There were several double-barreled shotguns in the surrounding neighborhood: at the homes of Hugh Thomson, Robert Brownlie, the Riches, and James Brownlie.

The latter’s, kept hanging on the front porch, was discovered missing during the week after Christmas when revelers sought it for New Year’s Eve. A pouch of chicken shot and a leather sack hanging next to it were left behind. James Brownlie believed the gun was stolen by two young men looking for work who had passed through.

☛ Suspicion Falls First . . . ☚

location of Davenport, Iowa

location of Davenport, Iowa

The coroner’s jury, which on the second day of the inquest moved its location to the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport, was conducted by former Davenport Mayor John C. Bills (later a member of the Iowa Legislature); professional shorthand recorder L.B. Dosh took down the testimony.

The three-man panel could easily declare the cause of the two deaths, but determining who was responsible for the horrible act was more challenging.

Suspicion soon fell on Davenport teamster and notorious drunkard Patrick Hennessy, who lived in Dr. Maxwell’s house in Davenport but was often in the country to trade horses, haul coal, and run a threshing machine.

In 1863, Hennessy worked the harvest for James and Alexander Brownlie, who accused him of stealing a watch. After he was tried in Davenport in Judge Blood’s court and acquitted, some claimed they heard him swear he would pay back the Brownlies if it took 10 years.

Others said Hennessy was observed on the night of the murder in a wagon with a suspicious looking man near Long Grove and appeared to be surveilling the Brownlie property. He was also believed to be one of two “wild looking men” who drove up to Postmaster Silas Richardson’s store and bought cigars on the night of the murder.

The coroner’s jury wanted to hear from Hennessy in person and issued a subpoena.

Hennessy disappeared from the area for nearly a week until Davenport Police Constable McNamara located him in a Maysville saloon and hauled him back to Davenport. McNamara reported that Hennessy started drinking before they left Maysville at 8:00 a.m. and continued all along the way.

It was discovered that the unkempt men who bought cigars in Long Grove were traveling sewing machine salesman L.A. Towns and his colleague Mr. Wilson; they left Long Grove on the night of the murders for Dubuque after stopping at Richardson’s store.

Although intoxicated on the stand, Hennessy testified as best he could, admitting he was “in the habit of drinking enough to get out of his head sometimes.” But he swore he never had the DTs, although he sometimes “felt mighty nervous.”

He learned of the murder through neighborhood gossip, he said, and denied spying on the Brownlies.

He swore that on the Sunday before the murder he and his wife visited friends in the country, after which he took sick and was confined to bed until the Thursday after the homicide. During that time, he swore, neither he nor anyone else took his team from the barn and his wife fed and cared for them.

Patrick Hennessy’s wife of six years, Ann, corroborated his testimony, saying he was “bilious” from Sunday to Thursday and she got pills for him. When Dr. Maxwell came for the rent, she lied and said her husband wasn’t there because they didn’t have the money.

Ann Hennessy swore the first time her husband left their house was on Wednesday night when he went out to buy $2 of corn for his horses from Thomas Shaughnessy two blocks away. Shaughnessy’s records verified the purchase, which was a good thing for the suspect, who admitted he didn’t remember purchasing the corn because he had been “a regular bender for three or four days.”

Brewery owner George Noth backed up that contention by testifying Patrick Hennessy was in his barroom on Harrison Street drinking beer with Nick Schlaback for an hour-and-a-half; others at the saloon said he had seven or eight drinks, as was his custom.

☛ Reward Offered ☚

Feelings about the Brownlie murders were running high across the state of Iowa, as well as in Scott County.

Iowa Governor Cyrus C. Carpenter put up a $1,000 reward, James Brownlie offered $500, the Scott County Board of Supervisors gave $1,000, and farmers in the Brownlies’ neighborhood gathered another $1,000 — bringing the total to $3,500. The large amount was considered a good incentive for police officers and private detectives to investigate the crime thoroughly.

☛ Private Detection ☚

from the Davenport Daily Gazette

from the Davenport Daily Gazette

As was the custom of the time, the crime scene was opened up to any and all who chose to enter and inspect it. Locals were urged to hunt for footprints and other clues all around the area, but little encouragement was needed when such a large reward was offered.

Neighbor John Greve, remembering he heard footfalls while out hunting his colts on the day of the murder, went back where he had been to look for prints. He found some made by a woman who walked across the field the day after the murder and another set leading from the Brownlie barn to a creek. Both sets were deemed insignificant.

On the Saturday after the murder, local farmer Joe Clinton entered the Brownlie house to inspect the kitchen. On the wall he found a flat, rolled-up piece of newsprint about an inch long — he could make out type which said “that house” on one side and “igno” on the other. Even though he believed it was paper from the wadding of the shotgun that was used in the killings, he put it into his wallet and said nothing until handing it over to Coroner William Grant and County Attorney John Bills a week later.

Joe Clinton later returned to the Alexander Brownlie farm and opened Lewis Johnson’s trunk of personal belongings. On top of the items, he found two pieces of newspaper with printing on them he believed corresponded to that on the wadding he’d found on the kitchen wall. Although there was no definitive way to link the wadding to the papers and the newspapers themselves were not torn, Clinton felt he was providing clues that would lead to the reward.

On Thursday, February 26, Spencer Clapp, a 16-year resident of Sheridan Township who lived about a half-mile from the crime scene, found James Brownlie’s shotgun in dried weed stems in a grove of Hazel saplings 83 feet north of the lane to Alexander Brownlie’s home, 65 feet east of the Long Grove Road, 25 feet west of the Dubuque & St. Paul tracks, and 10 feet west of a rail fence.

The shotgun stock was lying in the snow 10 feet from the double barrel, and both parts were submerged far enough into the snow to be obscured. Tracks leading from the Brownlie’s lane to the gun’s hiding spot were found in the hard, five-to-six-inch snow pack.

Clapp left the gun parts where he found them and went to the James Brownlie home; family members accompanied him back and verified he had found the missing shotgun. A crowd gathered, and a telegram was sent from the railroad’s Eldridge depot to Davenport authorities.

The condition of the barrels and stock indicated the two major components of the gun lay for only a few days where they were found.

☛ Another Suspect Emerges ☚

With the information about the wadding and the knowledge that Lewis Johnson had borrowed James Brownlie’s shotgun in the fall of 1873 to shoot prairie chickens, suspicion — already turned away from Patrick Hennessy — turned towards Lewis Johnson, who was called to testify before the coroner’s jury.

Johnson said he stayed Monday and Tuesday before the murders with friends in Davenport. After eating supper at Schonberg’s Restaurant, he left the city at 3:00 p.m. on the day of the murder to return to Alexander and Lizzie Brownlie’s home.

At the Steffen House on Duck Creek, Johnson hitched a ride with Lincoln Township farmer Henry Gertz as far as the Six Mile House tavern in Mt. Joy. He got out of the wagon at 5:00, walked along the railroad tracks, and stopped at the Long Grove Church at 8:00 for the Prayer Meeting.

When the service ended, he left with the others, including Franklin and Hannah Fearing, the minister Rev. Henry Exley, and James Brownlie — the father of Alexander and father-in-law of Lizzie Brownlie. The congregants all walked along the road together. The Fearings and Rev. Exley turned off the path at separate points.

James Brownlie home and farm (from 1875)

James Brownlie home and farm (from 1875 Andreas Atlas )

Johnson said he arrived with James Brownlie at the latter’s home about 9:00 and stayed half- to three-quarters of an hour to visit with the lady of the house, Ritchie Brownlie, her sons Robert and Alexander, a son-in-law John Flook, and a cousin Catharine Watson.

Alexander Brownlie left for his home on horseback and Johnson said he followed a few minutes later, using, not the railroad tracks which ran in front or cutting across fields, but the wagon road at a “middling fast” pace; he said he and Alexander proceeded side-by-side for a distance but split up because the horse was faster.

As he neared the Brownlie house, he saw a light in the upstairs window and heard a voice screaming for help. He rushed through the door and up the stairs, where Alexander and Sarah met him and told him Lizzie had been shot.

Brownlie asked Johnson to go downstairs and cross Lizzie’s hands on her chest and then ride the countryside to notify family and neighbors.

Johnson hurried to spread the word: to Lizzie’s father-in-law Robert Brownlie’s home and then to her brother-in-law James Brownlie’s, to the home of Hugh Thomson — Lizzie’s father — and to the houses of other relatives, including James Neal and her grandfather John Robinson. He also notified John Pollock before returning to the Alexander Brownlie home at 1:00 a.m. and staying the rest of the night.

☛ Emotions Run Rampant ☚

As the coroner’s jury went into its second week, County Attorney John Bills was steering the matter of guilt towards Lewis Johnson. Tensions ran high as word of this spread through the community.

By Friday, February 28, citizens packed the courtroom and were bunched up on the steps outside the Scott County Courthouse. There was such chaos the judge ordered the courtroom cleared, but onlookers continued to fill the square outside and gathered in smaller groups at other places nearby — all of them talking about Lewis Johnson.

A Mr. Keating and Joe Clinton traveled to Davenport on Friday night, carrying the found gun with them and the wadding and newspaper, and were prepared to argue the case against Johnson, possibly to receive the reward.

☛ Arrest is Made ☚

from the Monticello Express

from the Monticello Express

Lewis Johnson was staying at the James Brownlie home, but County Attorney Bills thought that was not a good idea given the possibilities that strong emotions might cause vigilantes to take justice into their own hands. Bills decided to place Lewis Johnson in custody for his own safety.

At 11:30 p.m. on Friday, Johnson was awakened. The Davenport Gazette noted he looked “weak from nervousness for the first time.” He slowly dressed before submitting to handcuffing. He then bade goodbye to the Brownlie family, insisting he was innocent and he would not fret but “would leave it to God.” Otherwise, he was quiet and calm. He was transported to the Davenport jail, searched, and incarcerated in a cell.

By 9:45 Saturday morning, nearly 3,000 people were either inside the Scott County Courthouse or on the square in front. Angry men, two-and three-deep, lined the pathway from the jail to the courthouse; and rumors circulated that some carried ropes and nooses. Johnson was not, however, brought to the courthouse that day.

Rain began to fall by afternoon, but still a thousand men stood in the square. Others crammed into the courtroom, which had been reopened by the judge.

Without mentioning the name of the accused, The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:

“No murder that was ever committed in Iowa created a greater or more profound feeling of sorrow and indignation, or more excitement than has the Brownlie murder. We are told that all through Scott County the feeling is still intense, and should the murderer be captured and should there be no doubt as to his guilt, there is not the slightest doubt that a piece of rope would be turned into a necklace for him or them.”

☛ Disinterment ☚

The Brownlie graves are to the left of the church in this contemporary photo (Google Street View).

The Brownlie graves are on the front row to the left of the church in this contemporary photo (Google Street View).

After Lewis Johnson began to be suspected by the coroner’s jury of killing Lizzie Thomson, Dr. Grant hoped to either prove or deny circulating suspicions that sexual assault took place and was the motive for the crime.

On March 4, Grant and Dr. J.W.H. Baker arrived in Long Grove on a train out of Davenport. They went quickly to the Long Grove Church, where in the driving rain three local men dug up the coffin of the murdered woman and carried it to a small shed nearby owned by Mr. Ritchie. The examination of the body was made easier because, according to the Waterloo Courier:

“The remains were remarkably free from decomposition — hardly a touch of that process being visible.”

☛ Accused ☚

from the Waterloo Courier

from the Waterloo Courier

On March 11, the coroner’s jury ruled Louis Johnson was responsible for the murder of Lizzie and Andrew Brownlie on the basis of a lengthy list of speculations reported by the Burlington Hawk-Eye:

    • ☛ He bore a grudge against Lizzie because she wanted him dismissed to save money, despite her husband’s desire for Johnson to stay on.

☛ Johnson watched the Brownlie home for two Wednesday nights previous to the murders to determine when Alexander went to Prayer Meeting in Long Grove but lost his nerve to act both times.

☛ Johnson stole the shotgun from James Brownlie’s porch, hid it in Alexander Brownlie’s barn, walked straight to the Brownlie home from Davenport, used it to shoot Lizzie and Andrew, walked a short distance, disposed of the gun in the snow, and then walked to the Long Grove Church for Prayer Meeting.

☛ He was familiar with the layout of the farm and house. Also, Johnson’s height matched what would be needed to fire the shots straight into the window, as had been done, when standing on the ground.

☛ Although Johnson admitted buying shot from Silas Richardson in Long Grove, he did not mention he also bought some from both Boothe’s Grocery and Berg’s Gun Shop in Davenport. Shot still wrapped in paper from Booth’s was found in the Brownlies’ barn. The size of the shot in the bodies matched that bought by Johnson from Mr. Berg.

☛ The paper wadding used in the shotgun might match newspapers found in Johnson’s trunk.

☛ Johnson’s account of his timeline did not work. By his accounts, it took him three hours to walk from where he was let out of Henry Gertz’s wagon to the Long Grove Christian Church. The jury estimated it should have taken an hour and 40 minutes, which gave him time to go to the Alexander Brownlie farm.

☛ He likely did not follow the railroad from Davenport but instead walked on the Dubuque road, riding for a time with Henry Gertz, and then went on to the Alexander Brownlie home.

☛ Johnson demonstrated nervousness and unease when the murder was mentioned in his presence and was particularly shaken when told the shotgun was found.

However detailed the accusations, not many in the community thought a conviction of Lewis Johnson could be made with that sort of speculation.

☛ Trial of Lewis Johnson ☚

A grand jury bound Lewis Johnson over for trial, to take place during the fall 1874 term of the District Court.

William F. Brannan, a prominent Muscatine attorney and Judge of the Iowa Seventh Judicial District, presided.

Both interest and tensions again ran high. The courtroom was packed every day, mostly with local women.

After a strenuous and lengthy jury selection that was hampered by wide-spread publicity the case received, a jury of 12 was empaneled and the trial of Lewis Johnson for the murder of Lizzie Brownlie (but not Andrew, her son) began on October 12, 1874.

John A. Green, --

John W. Green (State of Iowa)

John C. Bills assisted the State’s Attorney Ellis in presenting the prosecution’s case. John Walker Green, a former member of the Iowa Legislature, acted as defense attorney for Johnson with assistance from William A. Foster, who served as an Iowa State Senator in the 1880s.

The prosecution brought in witnesses to establish that Johnson bought shot near the time of the murder.

Eleven-year-old Sarah Brownlie testified that one day in the month preceding the murders when her father Alexander was away from home, a “wild looking” stranger who would not make eye contact stopped and asked for him. Hired hand Lewis Johnson told the man that Alexander was at a neighbor’s.

Sarah also provided the most startling of all the testimony given when she claimed that Lewis Johnson had spoken “improperly” to her and attempted “improper liberties” twice but she had promised him she wouldn’t tell anyone.

Lizzie's grandfather John Robertson, Sr. testified for Lewis Johnson.

Lizzie’s grandfather John Robertson, Sr. testified for Lewis Johnson.

The defense offered a procession of 15 witnesses who testified to the good character and behavior of Lewis Johnson, including the husband of the victim, Alexander Brownlie; her father-in-law, James Brownlie; the minister of the Long Grove Christian Church, Rev. Henry Exley; the victim’s maternal grandfather and great-grandfather, William Robertson, Sr. and Jr.; and Thomas Martindale, for whom Johnson once worked.

Rev. Henry Exley testified that when Lewis Johnson arrived at the Prayer Meeting on the night of the murder, there was nothing unusual about his appearance or actions. When the two shook hands, Johnson’s hand was bare and dry. He showed no unusual stress nor was there anything in his appearance to indicate anything out of the ordinary.

The Davenport Gazette wrote of John Bills’s summation to the jury:

“None of our readers need be told that Mr. Bills’ statement was solid and stupendous. It was for him to meet the able, ingenious, and eloquent efforts of the prisoner’s counsel; he attacked all their main points, exposed what he esteemed their sophistries, endeavored to undermine their construction of testimony; to parry their hard hits and put in harder ones in return, to shatter the foundation of the theory of innocence of the defendant which they built — and then he turned to the evidence as he understood it, took up each piece of it, connected all like a chain, and wound it about the prisoner at the bar, and so handed him to the jury, claiming a verdict for the State. It was an argument that will long be remembered by all who heard it.”

Judge Brannan’s jury instructions took 15 minutes to read.

The case went to the jury on Monday, October 14 and they debated until 3:00 a.m. the next day.

 William A. Foster (State of Iowa)

William A. Foster (State of Iowa)

On Wednesday, the jury handed a list of questions to the Judge and indicated they could not reach a decision. They were sent back to reconsider; and on Sunday, October 19, a verdict was reached.

Tension filled the courtroom as the spectators fell quiet to hear. The Davenport Gazette described what happened when the verdict — not guilty — was read:

“The stillness continued for a moment, then there was a murmur of applause, and then Johnson sprang to his feet, grasped the hands of the attorneys, Messrs. Foster and Green, and shook them earnestly. And well he might — they had pulled him safely through a perilous trial.”

The judge then announced that Johnson would be tried for the murder of Andrew Brownlie and he was taken by to his cell, causing those waiting outside to conclude he was found guilty.

Johnson, however, was never tried for that charge.

☛ Lizzie Brownlie’s and Andrew Brownlie’s Lives ☚

Lizzie Brownlie's tombstone, photographed by JaneB

Lizzie Brownlie’s tombstone,
photographed by Jane B

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Thomson Brownlie was born May 22, 1837 in Liverpool, England, (where her father was one of that city’s first policemen) to Jean Alice “Jennie” Robertson and Hugh Muir Thomson.

She had seven siblings: John R. Thomson, Agnes P. Thomson Ficke, Andrew Thomson, Hughenia B. Thomson Neil Marti, Hugh Muir Thomson, Jr., and James R. Thomson.

Hugh and Jennie Thomson brought their family to America in 1844 and settled in Scott County, where Lizzie met her future husband Alexander Brownlie at the Long Grove Christian Church.

Alexander Walker Brownlie in his elder years.

Alexander Walker Brownlie
in his elder years.

Alexander and Lizzie were married on January 22, 1861 at the home of her parents by Rev. Jonas Hartzell. Their children Sarah Ritchie Brownlie Calderwood, William “Willie” Brownlie, Anna J. Brownlie Neil, and Andrew Brownlie were born in 1862, 1866, 1868, and 1869, respectively.

Alexander Brownlie's tombstone, photographed by JaneB.

Alexander Brownlie’s tombstone, photographed by Jane B.

Lizzie was murdered on February 18, 1874 in her own home. Andrew, her youngest child, who was born November 15, 1869, suffered fatal wounds in the shooting of his mother and died after great suffering on February 21. The two are buried next to each other at the Long Grove Christian Church.

The Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote of Lizzie Brownlie’s services:

“The funeral . . . was the occasion of the largest concourse of people ever seen at Long Grove. The procession from the [Alexander Brownlie] house was of immense length. The services were held in the Christian Chapel, commencing at 2 1/2 [sic] o’clock. The Chapel was crowded; hundreds of people were unable to gain admittance. Elder [Henry] Exley, the pastor, preached the sermon, followed by an address by the venerable Elder [Jonas] Hartzell, who had been acquainted with Mrs. Brownlie from girlhood and . . . officiated at her marriage.”

The Davenport Gazette said of Lizzie Brownlie:

“She was a lovely woman in all that pertains to the duties of wife, mother, and neighbor and was regarded with affection by all in the neighborhood.”

Alexander Brownlie did not remarry. He passed away on December 29, 1918 and is buried next to his murdered wife and son.

☛ Related Case? ☚

A year-and-a-half earlier — on September 25, 1872 — Esther Alger, 72, was shot and murdered under similar circumstances in her farm home about 15 miles northwest of Long Grove. She, too, had been left alone while her husband and others were at a Prayer Meeting. Robbery appeared to be the motive and that murder, too, is unsolved. Click here to read the story in “Blood by Lamplight: Murder of Esther Alger 1872.”

The Davenport Gazette rallied the community in the wake of the two homicides, writing:

“The murderers of both women were brutal, cowardly fiends, and who knows where they may strike their next blows for money or to gratify feelings of revenge. And the community ought not to rest till [they are] solved.”


Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



  • ☛ “An Awful Murder!” Waterloo Courier, February 26, 1874.
  • ☛ “Archibald S. Maxwell, M.D.,” Transactions Iowa State Medical Society, Volume 6, 1885. Iowa State Medical Society, p. 465-466.
  • ☛ “The Brownlie Murder,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, March 6, 1874.
  • ☛ “The Brownlie Murder,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, March 12, 1874.
  • ☛ Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, February 24, 1874.
  • ☛ Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, February 25, 1874.
  • ☛ Cedar Falls Gazette, March 13, 1874.
  • ☛ “Crimes and Causalities,” Waterloo Courier, March 12, 1874.
  • History of Davenport and Scott County Iowa: Illustrated, Volume 1, Part 2. Harry E. Downer. Brookhaven Press, 1910.
  • History of Scott County, Iowa. Unigraphic, 1882.
  • Farm House: College Farm to University Museum. Mary E. Atherly. Ames: Iowa State Press, 1995.
  • ☛ Davenport Democrat, March 1, 1887.
  • ☛ Jackson Sentinel, October 22, 1874.
  • ☛ Jones County Liberal, March 12, 1874.
  • Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa . A. T. Andreas, 1875.
  • ☛ “The Long Grove Tragedy,” Davenport Gazette, March 1, 1874.
  • ☛ “The Long Grove Horror,” Davenport Gazette, February 20, 1874.
  • ☛ “The Long Grove Murder,” Davenport Gazette, February 22, 1874.
  • ☛ “The Long Grove Murder,” Davenport Gazette, February 24, 1874.
  • ☛ Monticello Express, March 6, 1874.
  • ☛ “Mrs. A.W. Brownlie at Long Grove Assassinated,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye, February 20, 1874.
  • ☛ “Mrs. A.W. Brownlie At Long Grove Assassinated,” Burlington Daily Hawk Eye, February 26, 1874.
  • ☛ “The Murder of Mrs. Brownlie,” Davenport Gazette, February 19, 1874.
  • ☛ “News Condensations,” Cedar Rapids Times, March 5, 1874.
  • ☛ Pat (Breniman) Rowell, Personal Correspondence, August 20, 2014.
  • ☛ “One Thousand Dollar Reward By the Governor,” Davenport Daily Gazette, February 26, 1874.
  • ☛ “One Thousand Dollars Reward,” Davenport Daily Gazette, March 7, 1874.
  • ☛ “Pencilings,” Jackson Sentinel, October 22, 1874.
  • Proceedings of the Annual Session of the Iowa, Volume 16, Part 1910. Iowa State Bar Association, 1910.
  • ☛ “Startling Discovery,” Davenport Gazette, February 27, 1874.
  • ☛ “The State,” Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye , Iowa March 5, 1874.
  • ☛ “Summing Up,” Davenport Gazette, October 16, 1874.
  • ☛ “Suspicion Dumbfounded,” Davenport Gazette, February 26, 1874
  • ☛ “Testimony,” Des Moines State Daily Journal, February 21, 1874.
  • ☛ “The Trial of Johnson,” Davenport Gazette, October 2, 1874.
  • ☛ “The Trial of Johnson,” Davenport Gazette, October 11, 1874.
  • ☛ “The Trail of Johnson,” Davenport Gazette, October 20, 1874.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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